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Safe Haven Marriage

Archibald Hart, Ph.D. and Sharon Morris May, Ph.D.

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Unraveling Strong Patterns of Arguing with Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

by Sharon Morris May, Ph.D.

At one time or another, we have all dealt with our marital hurts in destructive ways. You know the times. You yell at and call your husband selfish and insensitive, or you tell your wife she doesn't know what she's talking about as you shut her out and continue clicking through the TV channels. But you both walk away and think about what you have each said and later realize, "Great. Look at how I behaved, that wasn't respectful nor productive." Then you are able to come back together and heal the rift. Maybe another day, you and your spouse argue but end up turning toward each other and reconciling even before the discussion ends.

The above scenarios show how securely attached couples are able to heal and emotionally reconnect after an argument. This, however, is not the case with distressed couples. Distressed couples get stuck in a negative argument cycle fueled by strong emotions that keeps them heated and disconnected. The longer the couple has been stuck in their negative cycle, the longer the couple has been unable to turn toward each other and connect. This results in deep hurt and disconnection. Couples that long to be close will often seek a counselor in the hope of finding ways to heal their hurts and exit their argument freeway.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) is a marital model based on attachment theory that focuses on helping a couple identify their negative argument cycle, access and process their emotional experience, and so heal their hurts, change the way they interact, and emotionally connect. The EFT model is based on attachment theory and enables a marriage counselor to understand why a couple fights and then provides a clear path for helping a couple unravel their argument cycle.

Where is the best place to begin when a couple is caught in a strong argument pattern? According to EFT, the first step is to help outline the cycle the couple gets stuck in, making it clear it is their inability to exit the cycle that is hurting the relationship.

The next step is to access the emotions fueling the cycle by staying close to each partner's emotional experience. This can help expand each partner's emotional experience, so they are not just feeling anger when they hear their partner being sarcastic, but can help them talk about how lonely they feel. It's important to help each partner listen to their spouse's experience, understanding what the risk is for a spouse who does not hear what their partner is feeling.

As each partner's inner experience is expanded, new ways of interacting arise. One partner reaches out, and the other partner is there. Bonding experiences occur that strengthen a new way of relating.

Let me illustrate this from a recent counseling session. Jerry reaches for Ann but does not trust she will be there, so he puts up barbwire by using sarcasm to keep her at arms length and to prevent getting hurt. In response, Ann feels lonely, deeply wounded, and threatens to leave. When Ann presents her hurts to Jerry he is not sure what to do with them. So she pushes harder for a response, and he becomes sarcastic to protect his heart. In the end, she pulls away. They're stuck in an endless loop they cannot exit, which makes an emotional connection very difficult.

Ann - "He only cares about his bank account. He is so sarcastic. My life is lonely; it doesn't include him."

Jerry - "Oh great, she can yell at me and say all kinds of things, but when I do them-bam! She's out the door; she's gone!"

Therapist - "Help me here. What happens for you, Jerry, when you say, 'She's out the door; she's gone!'" (At this point, I slow Jerry down and help him identify what he is feeling in the moment. I'm interested in what happens inside him when he feels he might loose his wife.)

Jerry - "She is my life. I have to be sarcastic. If I'm not that way, I'll let her come too close and then she'll hurt me; she'll leave me. That will be devastating for me."

Therapist - "So you feel her slipping through your fingers and you'd like to let yourself reach for her, but you don't want to be put in a vulnerable position. That's when the barbwire goes up, right?"

I put Jerry and his sense of vulnerability into the marital cycle. He reaches for her; he fears she will reject him, so he puts up barbwire to protect his heart and keep her at arms length. He is not yet aware of what it is like for Ann to be kept at arms length. Ann lashes out at Jerry's sarcasm and, sensing he is at arms length, she complains about him not caring for her. She will also need to understand how her reactions impact the relationship.

Ann - "Oh Jerry, you are so dramatic."

Ann has not seen Jerry in a vulnerable position before, as he is usually sarcastic or critical. She isn't sure what to do with his vulnerability, so she deflects it. Her comment is like a bullet that can drive Jerry back into sarcasm after he has risked openness and sharing. So I catch the bullet and reframe for Ann how difficult it is for her to hear him talk about his softer feelings.

Therapist - "Ann, this is hard for you to hear. You have been very hurt in this relationship. You are very angry, and it is hard for you to hear how he feels. But it is important for Jerry to share how he feels. I know your perspective is different, and I want to hear your side as well. But I'm going to let him share his ideas right now, okay?"

I then turn to Jerry. I want to help him discuss how vulnerable he feels when he risks closeness and how he fears she will not be there. In this way, he begins talking about what happens for him the moment before he pushes Ann away with his sarcasm. I will then have Ann talk about her loneliness, and how his sarcasm impacts her. I will help each partner hold each other's perspective/experience in mind and then, hopefully, get them to understand how each contributes to the negative dance they're caught in. Helping each person take responsibility for how they impact each other is vital to fostering a safe-haven marriage.

Sharon Morris May, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. She speaks widely, trains counselors, and conducts marriage intensives for couples at La Vie Center in Pasadena, California. May is the editor for Extraordinary Women Newsletter. She can be reached at Sharon@havenofsafety.com.

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